PROCESS: Tom Gilroy and Campbell Scott on Acting, Directing and Details, Part II
by Tom Gilroy
Scott: Right, and not only that, to go through the whole process is important to a director. To know that in the editing room, twenty percent of the time you’re using stuff from before the actor knew the camera was rolling or you’re taking a line from somewhere else and putting it in his mouth. So in a way, it makes you as an actor just like, “Give it up already.” Yes, you’re going to try to be good, yes you’re going to bring your shtick in, and try to be different and whatever and powerful or whatever. But ultimately you kind of have to trust the director and his tools, like editing.
Gilroy: You’re relinquishing some control.
Scott: You have to. And so, going into it knowing that it’s incredibly helpful because it’s freeing. The only environment that I said that I don’t like is a destructive one. There’s one where people are being —
Scott: — or so caught up in something that has nothing to do with the job at hand. That it’s like a bunch of people running around with their heads cut off. It’s terrible.
Gilroy: So say you’re directing Denis Leary and you feel like you got it, you got what you wanted and he says, “No, no, no. Let’s try something else, blah, blah, blah.” Your impulse is always, let him try it?
Scott: Absolutely. If there’s time. And you know there are little rules that kind of always work out. One of which is, frankly, I think the first take is always the best. Usually. I don’t care what anybody thinks. I often find myself going back and using those.
Gilroy: Do you feel like when you look at a scene, you look at it from that kind of objective sense of saying, “Oh, this scene is about this and the actors should manifest it this way” or do you approach it like an actor, like “I see this person wants this and that person wants that and that’s what creates the scene.” You know what I’m saying? One approach is an overview and the other one is in the trenches.
Scott: I think about it all the time.
Gilroy: Sometimes I find I can’t actually think about a scene until after I’ve played all three of the parts in the scene in my head, just to find out what the hell the scene is about.
Scott: I think that there’s no doubt that the way I’m comfortable approaching things is the actor-oriented way. Frankly, I’m trying to get better at just working with the script to begin with. Learning how to cut, learning how to work with the writer and encouraging them to cut or change. Once you’ve actually done that kind of work, you’re comfortable enough thinking, “I see the whole thing.” Then you just go to the actors and you say “What do you want? What does she want? And what are you going to show me? And how does that change it?” To me, the hardest thing, my little cliche is, directing is really picking the right people and encouraging them. That’s all directing really is. But you know what, that’s really hard to do.
Gilroy: I think you have to add one more thing which is you really have to have an understanding of what the story is. I learned this mostly from writing. It’s like, yeah, it might be interesting to have this little flashback about your childhood in Nicaragua, but ultimately it’s not what this movie’s about.
Scott: That happens in the editing room as well. There’s nothing more freeing in the editing room than when you actually get to that place, which is horrifying, and you start to pull shit out. Even in Shakespeare when I did this “Hamlet” film. “Hamlet!” I mean, what’s wrong with that play? Nothing. Just say it. That’s it! Just make sure everybody’s good, but the fact is that it’s still a film and film is a different, slightly different language.
Gilroy: How much of what you did on stage in your two productions of “Hamlet” affect how you ultimately ended up blocking it, shooting it and framing it in the film version?
Scott: I first did “Hamlet” ten years ago. And I think that there’s no doubt that I was pretty clear about the adaptation I wanted to film because I had ten years of rehearsal basically. And it wouldn’t leave me. It was just a very personal identification with the role and with the play and that’s what I wanted to film. And you’re never going to get everything you want but there was an intimate way of seeing that huge play that I was very fascinated by in trying to do. As far as real blocking, I think you’d be surprised at how much remained, maybe not in the exact blocking but certainly in the dynamics of the scenes. You know: worked once, worked the second time, why change it?
Gilroy: You’ve been piecing it together for ten years visually in your head? That’s good.
Scott: But in an experimental way. In other words, you’re always throwing shit out. You know you think this is a fascinating way to do it and some of that remains and some of it doesn’t. Just specifically like the soliloquies, for example. I tried to look at them as not the soliloquies, of course, but each of them slightly differently. We’re at a different place in the play and so they mean something differently. And so filmically that became a key to me. Just as simply as how do you apply that? How do you look at each soliloquy, try to understand what’s the most important feeling? I don’t give a shit about ideas frankly. He did the ideas. He’s done better than I could ever do. It’s just feeling; it’s all feeling to me. That’s the way I operate.
Gilroy: But I feel like what’s crucial in what you’re saying is — and this may be because you come from the theater — is you thought about a role and an interpretation for ten years. It was at all times an ongoing project.
Gilroy: Which is, for an actor, a different era’s way of thinking; you had the classics. You have your whole life to compile this role in your head.
Scott: Not really, consciously.
Gilroy: Your whole life, you have these stories in your head that are building and will eventually come out. I don’t think if all you are acting in is movies like “Scream,” for example, you’re not thinking in those terms.
Scott: (Laughs.) “Scream” is an easy example. I think I could come up with more complicated examples for you and I to talk about. Like a Hollywood movie that portends or pretends to be complicated.
Gilroy: Like for example?
Scott: “The English Patient.” Here’s a stunning book by an amazing writer. And many facets of that film are very, very successful and interesting, but ultimately the film is treated, it seems to me, even with good actors I think like a “Scream” is treated. And there are many people that love “The English Patient” and movies like it. I don’t consider them shallow. They speak to them.
Gilroy: But there’s certainly nothing unexpected in that journey.
Scott: Correct. To me, real mystery, real details, real fucked-up-ness, is something that is worth doing, worth trying to do, worth watching, and ultimately hopefully shifting us slightly. What we do at its very, very best, at its very, very most, will shift us slightly in our seat. If only for two hours, great. If for the rest of our lives, even better. I think why “English Patient” is a great example of how complicated the whole process can become is because there are so many forces at work there. There’s a beautiful book written by a man who is truly an artist who knows what he is doing and then there is a lot of truly creative producers who recognize that, but they are also producers, so they operate in a certain world, so they’re gonna throw money at things. Then money comes into it and then it becomes this whole different thing. To me, one of the saddest things is failed potential.
Scott: In life. In an athlete, in a writer, in a mother, in a whatever.
Gilroy: No wonder you liked “Hamlet.” (Laughs.)
Scott: Right, and that is something you can look at and feel and think, ‘God, I hope to avoid that.’ Working hard is great, being lazy sometimes is great, but failed potential is the worst.
Scott: And most of these people, like most of us, are simply just trying to get through the day. And wait for those times in their life that are markers, that put things into relief. That’s why we like movies and books so much. Because that’s what they are. They’re markers. That’s what soliloquies are in a play like “Hamlet.” I always thought of them as markers, as windows. Suddenly he just talks and the audience gets him for a while and the rest of it is this great story, this great engine, which is what our lives feel like. And suddenly when we’re eighty we’re on a porch somewhere.
Gilroy: Doing soliloquies.
Scott: Right. [Checks his watch] I have to go because I want to see this play.
Gilroy: Great, although I wanted to go back and discuss Mamet and his theory of character and working with him.
Scott: [Laughing] That’s a much longer discussion.
© 2021 PMC. All rights reserved.